Bosnia 20 years on – Part 1

By Merryn Johnson

Twenty years after the beginning of the Bosnian War, Ed Vulliamy still rages against the powers that failed to act, the perpetrators not held to account, and the international organisations continuing to profit from the fractured regions sufferings.

“It’s not just about the war but about the peace after it… wars, and we talk about wars a lot in this room, come and go… but for the people whose lives are shattered by them, they never end.”

In August 1992, Vulliamy and Penny Marshall – also in the audience last night – were the first journalists to report on the Serb-run concentration camps at Omarska and Trnopolje. Chair and Frontline Club founder Vaughan Smith asked Vulliamy about this continuing controversial term, ‘concentration camp’.

“The first thing I saw were the shaven-headed inmates of Ormarska coming out of a hanger” said Vulliamy. “I think it is the right term. They were locations for the concentration of civilians for murder, rape, torture, deportation.”

Vulliamy described the international reaction at the time as “appeasement at best, encouragement at worst of continuing mass-murder”; while phrases such as ‘moral equivalence’, ‘perpetrator-less crimes’ and ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ were used to shun involvement. He explained how the truth is in the ground, with 100,000 dead – the majority of which are Bosnian Muslims – and 10,000 still missing.

During the Q&A, Vulliamy was asked whether the current economic climate could spark another conflict.

“I can’t see another war like that one, but it is a fool that predicts… I can see it degenerating into something differently nasty – crime going into a whirlwind of part-ethnic, part-drugs… I can see it degenerating with all these things exacerbated by these open wounds of war. On the other hand it may take a small incident in a place like Srebrenica… But you hear more violence than you see. The physical violence hasn’t happened yet, but it might… I think it’ll be murkier – like other capitalist slagheaps.”

Steve Crawshaw, international advocacy director at Amnesty International, asked whether there were any signs of reconciliation with the new generations.

Vulliamy said: “There is no sign at the moment that young Serbs have made any overtures. I think the reckoning will come through people falling in love, rock and roll, the social intercourse, as these monsters die off.”

Vulliamy’s great empathy for the people he wrote about 20 years ago was clear when asked about his book launch in Sarajevo last month.

“It was extremely moving… with old soldiers, old hacks, with a few comrades and renegades and alcoholics. It was great, with speeches I couldn’t understand, gifts that reduced me to tears. I’m a very, very lucky man to know these people and they’ve enriched my life more than I have words to say but my greatest wish would be that I’d never met any of them or that I’d met them by pure coincidence while on a train ride through Prijedor and not the way I did.”

In conclusion, Vaughan Smith said that for all their talk of missing monuments, perhaps Ed Vulliamy’s new book The War is Dead, Long Live the War: Bosnia: the Reckoning, goes some way to building one.